Portuguese Travels and the Meeting of Civilizations

At the end of the 14th century, the extent of the known world was, at most, equivalent to barely one quarter of its true area. As a result of the great expeditions of this period, Portugal became largely responsible for bringing Europe closer to Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. The significance of the Portuguese discoveries in the history of civilizations is that they made an extraordinary contribution to the opening up of the planet.

The new awareness of life on a planetary scale, which came into being with the discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries, began to stimulate a world economy. A mercantile economy centered on cities such as Lisbon and Seville came into being, with central and northern Europe and the Italian cities providing the main outlets and sources of finance.

In the 16th century, the drive for expansion took the Portuguese into the interior of Africa, with the exploration of the Monomotapa empire (Zimbabwe) in 1514, and to the Americas, with the arrival in 1500 of Pedro Alvares Cabral in Brazil and of the Corte Real brothers in Newfoundland. João Rodrigues Cabrilho played a decisive role in the exploration of Florida in 1539 and of California, in 1542-1543. The Portuguese went on to Asia and Oceania, reaching Malacca and the East Indies in 1509-1511, China in 1513, and Japan in 1542-1543.

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Portuguese Travels and the Meeting of Civilizations

The Portuguese Renaissance was a period of exploration during which Portuguese sailors discovered Atlantic archipelagos like the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde, explored and colonized the African coast, discovered an eastern route to India that rounded Africa, discovered Brazil, explored the Indian Ocean and established trading routes throughout southern Asia, and sent the first direct European maritime trade and diplomatic missions to Ming China and to Japan.

The World Before the Discoveries

The Medieval West shared an incomplete image of the world

Portugal in the Middle Ages

Portugal is the oldest country in Europe, founded in 1139.

Portugal at the Time of the Discoveries

Lisbon became one of the great centers of world trade and developed a cosmopolitan character.

Society and Power

Expansionism created new areas of sovereignty and trade.

The Main Voyages of the Discoveries

Portugal's voyages of discovery stand at the very beginning of the world’s first global culture.

North Africa

The conquest of Cueta on August 21, 1415 started the era of Portuguese expansion throughout the world.

The Islands of Madeira and the Azores

The archipelagos off the coasts of Portugal and North Africa became provisioning ports for voyagers as well as providing arable land.

West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea

The primary incentive for the exploration of the African coast was the development of profitable trade.

Christopher Columbus and Portugal

Columbus owed the most important part of his cultural and nautical training to his decade-long residence in Portugal.

On the Way to the Cape of Good Hope

Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

East Africa

The Island of Mozambique assumed prominence in Portugal’s campaign to take over trade with India and the East Indies after being claimed by Vasco da Gama in 1498.

Prester John

Prester John was the center of a number of legends that hark back to the writings of “John the Elder” in the New Testament.

The Sea Route to India

Twenty-eight-year-old Vasco da Gama was sent by Dom Manuel I on July 8, 1497, with a flotilla of four ships and 180 men around Africa to India to bring back spices.

The Route and Government of India

Portugal's network of Indian trading posts and fortresses were governed by viceroys appointed by the king.

Arabia and Persia

From Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the Portuguese-controlled customs house oversaw the lucrative trade throughout the Gulf region.

India and Ceylon

Goa became the Portuguese capital of the “State of India”.


Malacca held an important strategic position relative to the control of the main mercantile routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

China and Japan

Europe came to know China more realistically and discovered the Japanese civilization thanks to Portugal.

The Discovery of Brazil

On April 22, 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral “found” the land of Vera Cruz, later renamed Brazil.

The Colonization of Brazil

At first, Portugal did not assign much importance to Brazil.

Hegemony and Rivalries

Portugal and Spain enjoyed Iberian hegemony over a large part of the world.

Nautical Techniques

The invention of navigation by the stars made the Discoveries possible.

The Exponents of Nautical Technique

Others built upon the navigational techniques devised by the Portuguese.


Cartography throughout the 14th-16th centuries played a significant role in the expansion of the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula.

Naval Construction

Navigational practice resulted in improved ship building techniques.

Medicine and Botany

Garcia de Orta's description of the pharmaceutical species of the Orient is one of the unquestionably accepted contributions to Western medicine resulting from the Discoveries.

Flora and Fauna of the New Worlds

The Discoveries led to a wide transfer of plants and animals between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.

History and Literature

Portuguese literature of the Renaissance is distinguished by a wealth and variety of lyric poetry documenting its rulers, discoveries and conquests.


The Portuguese encountered the most varied religions and rituals previously unknown to Europeans, such as animism in Africa and Hinduism in India.

The New Vision of the World

The Portuguese Discoveries constitute an enormously impactful milestone in the History of Mankind.